How Trauma From Sexual Assault Affects Emotional and Mental Health
April 20, 2021
It’s shocking just how common sexual violence is. In the United States alone, nearly one in five women have been raped or experienced an attempted sexual assault in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Oftentimes, it’s by someone they know and even trust.
And for many women, it’s happening well before their 18th birthday. For one in three females who’ve been raped, the first instance occurred between ages 11-17, according to the CDC. Another staggering one in eight reported sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, or rape before age 10.
Not surprisingly, the trauma of such a harrowing experience extends far beyond the physical injuries. How it plays out may look a little different for everyone, but the commonalities often include:
…the trauma of such a harrowing experience extends far beyond the physical injuries.
- Feeling alone, ashamed, or scared
- Flashbacks or recurring nightmares
- A lack of trust in others or even yourself
- Questioning of your judgment, self-worth, and what “you did wrong”
- Fear of intimacy in relationships or fear of relationships altogether
- Struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Loss of self-worth
- Anxiety or depression
- Increased risk of developing substance abuse use to ease distress
- Increased vulnerability to suicidal ideation or attempted suicide
Prioritizing Trauma Resolution
When it comes to addressing the aftereffects of sexual violence, it’s probably tempting for some to buy into the adage that “time heals all wounds.”
While time may provide some physical distance from the event, it can’t be overstated how important it is not to overlook the effect that trauma has on someone’s emotional and mental health. As Kate Ryan, a photographer, detailed in a feature for the New York Times, “The trauma of sexual violence is not something we fix. It is something we manage daily. It takes work. And that work is as messy and complicated as the individuals who live it.”
Recovering from rape or sexual trauma isn’t something meant to be managed alone. As difficult, embarrassing, or impossible as it seems, it’s far more dangerous mentally and emotionally to keep it to yourself. There’s power, not to mention healing, in reaching out to treatment professionals for therapy and support.
In addition to a strong support system, it’s important to have a plan for triggers that may arise unexpectedly. Triggers could include driving by the place associated with the event; the anniversary of when it happened; someone who resembles the person who harmed you, etc.
Learning about these triggers and knowing how to process them will help you realize what’s happening in real-time so you can take the steps to calm down, reset, and realize you’re not in danger.
How Sexual Trauma Affects Men
While the scales are still tipped heavily toward women, nearly 1 in 38 men have also experienced rape, sexual assault, or an attempted sexual assault during their lifetime.
For one in four male victims of rape, they were between 11-17 years old when it first occurred. Another one in four males reported the event happened before age 10. As with women, there is shame associated with sexual abuse, which often makes men reluctant to talk about it. Another issue that’s common is the feeling of needing to be self-sufficient, tough, and strong to be “a real man.”
LGBTQ men are at a greater risk for sexual trauma than heterosexual men.
As a result of unresolved trauma, men may struggle with seething anger, particularly when feeling threatened or betrayed. Low self-esteem, the inability to be vulnerable in a relationship, and lack of sex drive have also been reported, which can interfere with their perceived “manhood.” Sexual abuse has also led many men to question their sexual orientation or have concerns about their masculinity.
A report in The Washington Post also noted that LGBTQ men are at a greater risk for sexual trauma than heterosexual men. More than 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent who identify as bisexual reported being sexually victimized, compared with 21 percent of straight men.
While it’s certainly not easy and may not fit with our perception of male gender roles, opening up and being vulnerable about what has happened is key in processing the event in healthier ways.
Forging Forward With Hope
If you or someone in your life is struggling in the aftermath of sexual abuse and any co-occurring disorders, don’t hesitate to reach out to our caring, knowledgeable staff at Willow House for Women. For more than 40 years, our treatment professionals have been helping people overcome addiction, heal unresolved emotional trauma, and develop the tools needed to transform their lives.